The Peaceable Kingdom is Still Coming

I had the privilege of preaching this sermon on December 4, 2016, at Waverly Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our scripture reading comes from Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

The word of the Lord.

The world described in Isaiah 11 is not our world. I want to live in this world, but this is not our world. This is literally a counter-vision of our world. If you doubt that, go back on Facebook for thirty seconds. After the service. Or turn on Fox News, or CNN, or open the Post-Gazette.

This is not the world we live in. We live in a world of snap judgments, of angry Facebook reactions and shares of stories that may not even be true just because they make us angry. We are so quick to judge by what our eyes see and what our ears hear.

Our politicans judge the rich with unrighteousness and decide with firm in-equity against the meek of the earth. Our hearts are inundated with news of the innocent being killed as the breath of their mouths are stolen by those in authority. Finding a righteous and faithful politician isn’t unlike unicorn hunting. And this business about predators and prey living in harmony sounds like something out of Zootopia. Everyone thinks vegetarian lions and bears are a good idea… except the lions and bears.

They will not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain for sure, but just as surely, this world is not God’s holy mountain, and God’s holy mountain is not to be found on earth, and earth is painfully not filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Earth is filled with the knowledge of the tragic ways of the world. It is filled with politicians who compromise what they know will do the most good for the most people because they know congress won’t approve it, or their constituents will vote them out at the next election. It is filled with people who vote for the less-evil candidate because the good candidate cannot possibly win. We know our clothing and electronics and chocolate are made by unpaid or underpaid workers, but this is the way the world works.

The sad knowledge of the world is that drones and bombs and missiles and assault rifles are the only way to make peace. Most people I know of who buy guns buy them for self-defense, because it is painfully clear that the world imagined in Isaiah 11 is not the world we live in, and because earth is filled with the knowledge of the tragic ways of the world, and not filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the seas.

So what do we do with Isaiah 11? What good is it? Is it just a beautiful fantasy that doesn’t connect at all with the world we live in today? Is “peace,” the theme of this second Sunday of Advent, just a tragic joke? Are we who live in hope of this coming peaceable kingdom doomed to the fate of the magazine “The Christian Century,” so named because they thought the 1900s were going to be the time when people finally got it right and lived in Christian charity, only to find the 20th century the setting for the first world war, and the second one, and the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, and countless others.

Calling the 20th century “The Christian Century” was more than a little optimistic. Is hope the same as optimism, a “glass-half-full” state of mind? No! For Isaiah, the glass is not half-full. Isaiah’s glass is all but completely empty, and what’s left of the contents is on fire. He just finished prophesying that the kingdom of Assyria is going to come and crush his country. Isaiah’s hope for peace is not a different way of thinking about reality. It doesn’t “depend how you look at it;” from all angles, the situation is objectively terrible.

All angles, that is, except one: the angle of the eye of faith. For Isaiah, as surely as the King of Assyria is coming to destroy Israel, the King of Assyria will himself be destroyed. Isaiah knows that the King of Assyria’s coming violence has an expiration date – not because of term limits, but because of divine limits.

Isaiah knew the future because Isaiah knew his history. Isaiah was steeped in the Exodus, because it was part of the Passover celebration his people commemorated every. single. year. Egypt held Israel captive, God broke their power. And we have access to even more history than he did.

We know Assyria defeated the northern kingdom and attacked the very gates of Jerusalem… but Assyria fell.

Babylon ultimately did haul Israel off into captivity, but Babylon fell.

Babylon was defeated by Persia, which continued to rule over the people of God, but Persia fell.

Persia was defeated by Greece, which then took over Israel, but Greece fell – first to the Maccabees, and then to Rome.

Rome executed Jesus, but Jesus was resurrected.

Rome persecuted the early church, and tried to destroy it, but Rome fell.

And in the twentieth century, as surely as the Third Reich built concentration camps and killed the innocent, the Third Reich fell.

The Soviet Union fell.

The Berlin wall fell.

Proverbs 29:16 says,

When the wicked are in authority, transgression increases,
    but the righteous will look upon their downfall.

Psalm 37 reminds us that the day of the wicked is coming, and it will not be long.

The people of God can take heart from the words of Isaiah 11, because Isaiah 11 is the next episode of the story of this world.

When I was younger, I used to read the Hardy Boys Mystery Series. Sometimes, those stories got just a little too scary for me to handle. Our eternally-young heroes Frank and Joe get captured, and the bad guys tie them up and throw them into a van and set the van to drive off a cliff into the ocean. When you’re eleven years old, that’s pretty scary. I would always pull myself out of the story for a minute and remember: Frank and Joe have to survive, because there’s another story after this one, and they’re in it. Then I returned to the story with courage.

That’s what Isaiah 11 is about. Isaiah 11 is the sequel. No matter how much trouble our world is in, as Christians, we can pull ourselves out of the story for a minute and remember; we can look with hope at Isaiah 11 and say, “I know the bad guys have our world tied up and thrown in a van that’s set to drive off a cliff into the ocean, but THE PEACEABLE KINGDOM IS STILL COMING!

And from where Isaiah sits, all the bad guys and rope and vans and cliffs and oceans in the universe cannot do a thing to stop it. They can slow it down, but it. is. still. coming.

But right now, we live in the middle of the story. We live between the world restored, and the world tied up and thrown in a van set to drive off a cliff into the ocean. Which is to say, we live in advent. We live in waiting to see how we get from here to there.

Now, just as surely as Frank and Joe have to pull off some clever tricks or get rescued by their friend Chet and the police, we still have our part to play, but while we’re doing it, we can remember: there’s another story that’s coming after the one we’re in now. And in that story,

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

They will not hurt or destroy
on all God’s holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

That is the sequel.

Edward Hicks - Peaceable Kingdom

==Benediction==

Go out into the world in peace.
Have courage.
Be patiently impatient.

And when you see our world
tied up in a van
that’s about to drive off a cliff
into the ocean,
may God remind you
that this story has a sequel,
and if the Bible is to be believed at all,
you’re in it.

Now may the love of God,
the Light of Christ,
and the power and communion of the Holy Spirit
be with us all.
Go in peace.

Amen.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.